Thursday, June 02, 2011

New Jersey Supreme Court Rules Bars May Be Sued By Drunk Drivers

The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Court's decision finding that a drunk driver can sue bars that served him alcohol. This may lead to higher costs for bars and taverns across the street as drunk drivers may attempt to go after those who serve them alcoholic beverages:
New Jersey's Supreme Court has ruled a convicted drunken driver has the right to sue the bar that served him.

Wednesday's 5-2 ruling stems from a 2006 motorcycle crash in which Frederick Voss had a blood-alcohol level of .196 percent, or nearly two and a half times the legal limit of .08 percent.

Voss later pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated.

He sued the Toms River restaurant Tiffany's, claiming it negligently kept serving him.

The tavern said the suit isn't allowed under a state law that says people convicted of DWI cannot sue.

The court ruled that law pertains to insurance claims, not to those who serve drinks.
The full case is Voss v. Tranquilinio, A-110-09, 6/1/2011.

The bar was sued by the drunk driver after he was arrested on DUI charges alleging that the bar negligently served him, the state Supreme Court didn't issue a written opinion, but instead adopted the position of the Appellate Division, which affirmed the trial court's rationale that the Dram Shop Act permits a person who sustains damages as a result of negligent service to sue.

The legislative history apparently indicated that the original Dram Shop Act would have prohibited suits by intoxicated drivers or passengers who knew the drivers were intoxicated against servers but that provision was stricken from the final legislation.

Two of the justices dissented, noting that the plain language of N.J.S.A. 39:6A-4.5(b) should bar Voss from suing and that the majority has rewritten a clearly expressed unambiguous statute:
Any person who is convicted of, or pleads guilty to, operating a motor vehicle in violation of R.S.39:4-50, section 2 of P.L.1981, c.512 (C.39:4-50.4a), or a similar statute from any other jurisdiction, in connection with an accident, shall have no cause of action for recovery of economic or noneconomic loss sustained as a result of the accident.
On its face, Voss should have been barred from suing the tavern, but instead the courts are substituting their own judgment for that of the legislature.


If the legislature intended for drunk drivers to be able to sue those who serve them alcohol, they would have stated it as such. As it is, the state statute above clearly indicates an intention to provide no such right. Just because the legislature doesn't specifically indicate in the legislative history that it meant to specifically address such liability doesn't override the fact that the statutory language is unambiguous. It clearly indicates that such suits are barred.

Expect this issue to again be taken up by the legislature to resolve the court's actions.

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